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Turning the Table: Emmanuel Macron in Moscow

Turning the Table: Emmanuel Macron in Moscow
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Not since the Yugoslav Wars has Europe faced tensions at the level of the crisis that is unfolding at Ukraine’s gates. True to their golden rule of diplomacy first, Europe’s heads of state are doing everything in their power to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow on February 8 was part of the efforts to temper Vladimir Putin’s resolve. In this latest article in the series "Ukraine and Russia: Destined for Conflict?" Michel Duclos, former ambassador, analyzes the meeting between the two presidents.

Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin have a strange relationship.

Whether in Versailles in May 2017 or Moscow this month, St. Petersburg in May 2018 or, of course, the Russian "tsar’s" spectacular visit to Brégançon in August 2018, Macron has worked hard to woo Mr. Putin. Thus far, his efforts have proved nothing but futile.

Emmanuel Macron did not obtain any concessions from the Kremlin on Syria, nor on Ukraine, which was the main issue on the agenda in Brégançon already. Putin also got in Macron’s way in Libya, not to mention in Mali, where Russia has been dealing strategic blows to French interests through the Wagner company. In the case of Mali, Russia’s actions risk bolstering jihadist groups and plunging the country into further chaos.

Despite the repeated rebuffs, the French President has consistently maintained a willingness to engage in dialogue. He has laid out his approach many times - the November 2019 interview with The Economist comes to mind - and defends it to his European counterparts, who are often wary of Russia. His standing with other European heads of state, as well as with American Democrats, has suffered as a result: in many capitals, the French president arouses suspicions of complacency toward Moscow.

At best, Macron’s relationship with Putin has been unfruitful; at worst, it has been toxic. Does the Moscow meeting mark a turning point?

At any rate, the five hours of discussion between the two men, followed by a dinner where sturgeon was on the menu, were not futile. In fact, they have helped lower tensions. It should be recalled that both Russia and commentators have previously emphasized that dialogue with Washington is the only thing that counts in the eyes of Moscow. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will follow President Macron’s visit to the Kremlin next week. In other words, after seemingly having been cast aside, Europe is now making a comeback through two of its dominant players.

Perhaps Vladimir Putin realizes that a tête-à-tête with Joe Biden is not enough to transform his threats to invade Ukraine into a political breakthrough. He undoubtedly hopes that his European counterparts are easier to manipulate. This, however, is precisely where his history with Emmanuel Macron may come of service: the French president - who has never ceded anything of particular importance to Russia - has experience in dealing with Putin.

Within this context, from a French point of view, there are three questions that will determine how this crisis will play out.

Is Emmanuel Macron’s approach to Russia yet another instance of "going at it alone", an accusation that has often been targeted at the president?

The answer is no, for at least two reasons. First, unlike in Brégançon, the French president made sure to consult a large number of European partners, including the Baltic states, which are among the most vulnerable to the Russian threat. He phoned President Biden several times. On his way back from

Moscow, he stopped in Kiev to debrief with President Zelinski, and then in Berlin for talks with the German Chancellor and the Polish president, Andrzej Duda.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: in their own styles and accents, the different western capitals are in fact singing the same tune.

In their own styles and accents, the different western capitals are in fact singing the same tune.

Their tune carries two key messages. On the one hand, the West flaunts the counter-threat of heavy sanctions in the case of Russian aggression. The French were the first, or among the first, to speak of "massive consequences". On the other hand, it offers Putin a political way out in case he realizes that his hand is not as strong as he had initially thought. Observers as well as political leaders have pointed to apparent cracks in the united front between the US and Europe.

On sanctions, for instance, the Germans are far less open than the Americans are to bringing an end to Nord Stream 2 in the event of a Russian attack. And on the question of arming Ukraine, the British are notably more fervent than others. 

In reality, however, these nuances are secondary to the consensus that exists on the bottom line. The West’s approach to political resolution centers around two points: arms and confidence-building measures for Europe as a whole, and, with regard to Ukraine specifically, the 2015 Minsk Agreements. The former is clear NATO territory and, in practice, the focus of the Russian-American dialogue. Negotiations on the latter issue are taking place in the so-called Normandy Format, which involves Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.

This is Germany and France’s entry point into the great game that is unfolding. But aren’t Normandy

Format talks doomed to end in either failure or a humiliating setback for Kiev?

This is one of the major issues of the current crisis. It should be noted that the balance of power on the ground has been shifting in Ukraine’s favor because of the arms and training its forces have been receiving for several months now, thanks in particular to the Biden administration. Contrary to Russian propaganda, there are no "NATO missiles" pointed at Russia from Ukrainian territory. Nevertheless, equipment like Turkish drones in Ukrainian hands could make life harder for Russian proxies in Donbass. This certainly contributes to Putin’s fury and his desire to break the Ukrainians - but perhaps, in an optimistic scenario, also to his need to make concessions.

Ukraine is generally not in favor of implementing the Minsk Agreements, which were concluded at a time when Kiev was in a very weak position. Vladimir Putin’s misogynistic statement during his press conference with Emmanuel Macron can only have strengthened Ukraine’s position on the subject: "Whether you like it or not, you’ve got to put up with it, my beauty…".

The Russians expect Berlin and Paris to push the Ukrainian leaders toward the full application of the Minsk Agreements. It is commonly agreed that this would lead to a destabilization of Ukraine’s political center in the immediate term and to a sort of Ukrainian subservience to Russia in the longer term. The pro-Russians in Donbass would gain major influence on Kiev’s policies.

The Russians expect Berlin and Paris to push the Ukrainian leaders toward the full application of the Minsk Agreements.

Given these facts, it is tempting to consider that the negotiations can only end in a permanent stalemate - that is, unless the sheer magnitude of the crisis creates a context that is conducive to a change in current positions. This is the great unknown that the governments in Berlin and Paris will have to tackle in the coming weeks. As noted above, the balance of military power on the ground has shifted in favor of the Ukrainian authorities. The political balance of power in Ukraine has undoubtedly also shifted to Russia’s disadvantage.

The idea of declaring Ukraine a neutral country, as a way to end the impasse, has been floating around in many circles in the United States and Europe. The French president denies having spoken of a "Finlandization", contrary to claims by journalists who were with him on the Moscow trip. It is perhaps not irrelevant to entertain this line of reasoning, but the fact remains that Russia’s behavior has so far been pushing Ukraine toward the West. It is imperative to make the Kremlin understand that its current attitude can only reinforce this trend.

Is there any real hope for de-escalation?

This is obviously an impossible question to answer. The Kremlin denies Macron’s claim that he had received assurances from Putin that the situation would not deteriorate and would instead de-escalate. Whether or not Russia will actually withdraw its troops from Belarus after the exercises scheduled for in about ten days will be an important indicator.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a joint statement that goes a long way toward aligning the positions between the two countries.

The Americans, for their part, continue to leak reports that Russia is supposedly planning a major operation with the objective of taking Kiev. It should be noted that negotiations with Moscow are taking place through various channels. Moreover, China is undoubtedly an important factor in the development of the crisis. Last week in Beijing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a joint statement that goes a long way toward aligning the positions between the two countries.

However, there is a prevailing sense that the Chinese did not encourage Putin to take action. China is going to buy more Russian gas, but not under conditions and in volumes that would allow Moscow to dispense with sales to Europe or strengthen its negotiating position with its European customers.

Looking ahead

While all these elements point in different directions, it is worth adding a longer-term consideration. As we have already argued, the motivations of Putin and his advisors - who form an increasingly small and isolated clan - cannot be reduced to a game of chess about European security. The Russian president is also motivated by the stamp he wants to leave on history and the fear of seeing his country marginalized in the new geopolitical configuration of Sino-American opposition.

As a result, we can expect other crises in the future - even if the current one is successfully defused. Russia’s deteriorating position in Ukraine might prompt the Kremlin to launch a "minor incursion" - to use Joe Biden’s expression - or to resort to "hybrid" actions that include cyber attacks, of which we have already had a taste. The current convergence of European and American approaches is not guaranteed in future episodes. If there is a lesson to be learned in the medium term, it is that the West, and Europe in particular, needs to prepare for a relationship with Russia that is likely to remain difficult - confrontational, even, at least as long as Vladimir Putin’s generation is in power.

In the immediate term, President Macron’s management of the crisis has likely strengthened his credibility among France’s allies and partners. The next step is for him and his officials to project further ahead, toward a common European attitude that is fit for what is left to come.



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